Through a series of experiments on mice, the researchers showed that during sleep, cerebral spinal fluid is pumped around the brain, and flushes out waste products like a biological dishwasher.

Scientists in the U.S. claim to have a new explanation for why we sleep: in the hours spent slumbering, a rubbish disposal service swings into action that cleans up waste in the brain.

Through a series of experiments on mice, the researchers showed that during sleep, cerebral spinal fluid is pumped around the brain, and flushes out waste products like a biological dishwasher.

The process helps to remove the molecular detritus that brain cells churn out as part of their natural activity, along with toxic proteins that can lead to dementia when they build up in the brain, the researchers say.

Maiken Nedergaard, who led the study at the University of Rochester, said the discovery might explain why sleep is crucial for all living organisms. “I think we have discovered why we sleep,” she said. “We sleep to clean our brains.”

Writing in the journal Science, she describes how brain cells in mice shrank when they slept, making the space between them on average 60 per cent greater. This made the cerebral spinal fluid in the animals’ brains flow ten times faster than when the mice were awake.

The scientists then checked how well mice cleared toxins from their brains by injecting traces of proteins that are implicated in Alzheimer’s disease. These amyloid beta proteins were removed faster from the brains of sleeping mice, they found.

Ms. Nedergaard believes the clean-up process is more active during sleep because it takes too much energy to pump fluid around the brain when awake. “You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time,” she said in a statement.

The cerebral spinal fluid flushes the brain’s waste products into what she calls the “glymphatic system” which carries it down through the body and ultimately to the liver where it is broken down.

Other researchers were sceptical of the study. “It’s very attractive, but I don’t think it’s the main function of sleep,” said Raphaelle Winsky-Sommerer, a specialist on sleep and circadian rhythms at Surrey University, southeast England. “Sleep is related to everything: your metabolism, your physiology, your digestion, everything.” She said she would like to see other experiments that show a build up of waste in the brains of sleep-deprived people, and a reduction of that waste when they catch up on sleep.

Jim Horne, professor emeritus and director of the sleep research centre at Loughborough University, cautioned that what happened in the fairly simple mouse brain might be very different to what happened in the more complex human brain. But Ms. Nedergaard believes she will find the same waste disposal system at work in humans. The work, she claims, could pave the way for medicines that slow the onset of dementias caused by the build-up of waste in the brain. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2013

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